Billy Davidson Book (Kayak Bill)

alexsidles

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At last! I’ve been waiting for this for years, even to the point of harassing Brandon by email to see when it would be published. Thanks for the announcement, Drahcir. Pre-ordered my copy immediately.

Alex
 

chodups

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It's been a long haul for Brandon and all of the folks waiting for it to come out. He spent a lot of time talking to friends, family and acquaintances of Billy's. I expect it may be equal parts inspirational and heartbreaking.

Of interest to some may be that just one week ago I was contacted by a paddler working for the Kitasoo/Xai'Xais who had just found one of Bill's camps on Princess Royal Island that very day. He sent me some photos for my collection. I was aware that he had a camp there at one time but I was under the impression that the site was of great cultural significance to the First Nations so had never landed there or spoken of it.

Another camp that I have never been to is the one he had at Wallace Bight. Have any of you been to it? Have photos to share?
 

chodups

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Some of these details are filling in blanks that I had been come up against. Very interesting.
 
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alexsidles

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Alex, Your name and article is mentioned. Please read.
Aaaah, you’re killing me! But I can’t justify buying both a Kindle and a paperback version of the same book. I’ve pre-ordered my bed, now I have to lie in it.

I’ll look forward to discussing the book next month with you and the other admirers of Kayak Bill.

Alex
 

alexsidles

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You’re in there, too, Jon! Brandon obviously relied pretty heavily on you and Glenn Lewis for the kayaking chapters. I’m happy to see your research in print.

Brandon’s authorial approach in To Be a Warrior is that of a journalist. He reports the facts of Kayak Bill’s life in dry fashion: Here is Bill making his first-ever aid climb. Here he is notching a first ascent with a group of famous climbers. Now here’s Bill living in a float house on the coast. Now he’s in Sointula.

The factual approach is not without merit. As Jon said, above, Brandon’s book fills in a number of details about Bill’s life, including the decade of the 1980s that none of the other Kayak Bill writers had previously been able to cover. What’s missing from Brandon’s book—but what the other Kayak Bill writers were able to capture—is the magic of Kayak Bill.

To those of us who admire him, Kayak Bill is more than the sum of his parts. Bill’s climbing routes may have been impressive in their time, but there were better climbers than him even during the 1970s when he was active. Bill’s kayaking expeditions were lengthy and remote, but there are plenty of kayakers who have paddled deeper into the wilderness under more challenging conditions. Even Harvey Island, Bill’s most remote campsite, is less than thirty-five miles from a town.

What makes Bill special is not the technical details of his adventures but rather the spirit in which he undertook them. He rejected a life of conformity and dependence in favor of a life on his terms alone. It is the boldness of his lifestyle that inspires me and the other Kayak Bill writers, not the boldness of any particular kayaking or climbing adventure.

The other writers—Colin Lake, Keith Webb, Jon Dawkins, and Neil Frazer—talk about the ways Bill’s life made them think about their own lives, or about the wilderness, or about their relationships with other people, or even about the way they, the authors, felt about Bill. No such introspection is present in Brandon’s book. Even when Brandon interviews people who were close to Bill, including Bill’s girlfriend, his son, his painting mentor, and his climbing and coastal buddies of decades’ acquaintance, there is no mention of how Bill made anyone else think or feel.

Nor is there much mention of how Bill felt himself. Bill didn’t always live in the wilderness, and he didn’t always forage for food. He wasn’t even always a loner. For decades, he lived in ordinary houses alongside friends or his girlfriend while he worked conventional jobs. In his mid-30s, Bill began drifting away from all that, spending more and more time alone in his kayak, but Brandon gives us no insight into why Bill changed and why at that point in his life.

Even the most wrenching episode in Bill’s life is presented without emotion. In 1996, having gradually spent less and less time at home over the years, Bill paddled away from his girlfriend and young son for good. His son never saw him again. Why did Bill abandon his family? Was it hard for him when he did? Was it hard for them? Did they understand that he was leaving forever? Are they still hurt? Brandon does not explore these questions. We learn more about Bill’s fistfight to win his girlfriend’s love than we do about his decision to leave her and their son forever. We learn more—a lot more—about Bill’s love for tobacco than we ever do about his love for his family.

There are similar gaps in Brandon’s account of Bill’s relationship with his birth family. Bill grew up in an orphanage, but he returned to his father after high school and lived with him for years. This would seem to be a critical juncture in Bill’s emotional development, but we learn nothing about Bill’s mind during those years. Instead, we learn about his motorcycle.

I read Brandon’s book hoping to make closer acquaintance with a hero of mine. However, Brandon offers less insight into Bill’s character than any of the other Kayak Bill writers offer in their articles. Brandon himself does not seem to feel the magic of Kayak Bill as strongly as the other writers do, leaving me to wonder why he felt called to write this book.

Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Mark Sundeen’s The Man Who Quit Money are better examples of biographies of eccentric loners. The authors are able to penetrate their subjects’ interior lives—in Krakuer’s case, after the subject was dead. They devote substantial space to their subjects’ philosophies and relationships, the things that make their subjects interesting. The portraits in these books are vivid in ways that the portrait in To Be a Warrior is not.

Read To Be a Warrior for its excerpts from Bill’s journals, including his factual accounts of making passages, setting up camps, and foraging for food. For appreciation of what Kayak Bill’s life meant to other people, read one of the other writers on Jon’s blog, 3meterswell.blogspot.com

Alex
 

glcwhistler

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I haven't read the book, but I was reading Alex's first few paragraphs and getting into the body of the rest, I was even thinking of Karakauer's into the Wild and was actually happy Brandon didn't take all the liberties that someone like Krakauer did with that character.

Then, Alex mentioned Krakauer.

I don't care for Krakauer and I haven't found any experienced climber who does, even the guides I know who have climbed with Krakauer ignore the subject of talking about him, because they have nothing nice to say. I don't like how he changed the truth about the little loser in his book, he omitted the negatives about all the despicable things CM did before his death in the bus. I bet the cabin owners whose cabins he ransacked and destroyed in the area didn't miss him after his death either.

Bill leaving his girlfriend and son? I guess that is why they say to never meet your heroes, you will only be disappointed.

The reason I have been interested in Bill and his legend was his ability to live off the land and stay out in the wild away from society.

Chodups writings about the seal burgers and the rendered fat was fascinating to read. I will get the book and see what it says, but I have not built it up to be something that makes me fall in love with Bill's legend, or romanticize his lifestyle choices either. If anything, Alex's feelings are more of a heads up that it won't be the case.

Knowledge is power and Bill seemed to have a lot of knowledge about certain things most people in society have no clue about. Things that have been lost and not passed down to the younger generations. That is my draw to read about him and to learn more about his life.

I appreciate Alex's feelings and the last paragraph seems to sum it all up.
 

alexsidles

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A couple little inconsistencies I've noticed among the various Kayak Bill writings:
  • Neil Frazer's "Looking for Kayak Bill" describes Bill's kayak, named Ayak, as "green on the top and white on the bottom, like a coho when you first see it in the water at the end of your line."
But a photograph of Ayak in Brandon's book shows brown or orange on top and black on the bottom. The colors are nothing like those of a coho. Did Bill use more than one kayak?​

  • Brandon transcribes an interview with Bill in which Bill claims his longest day was 70 miles. "That was Sooke to Port Renfrew. I was practicing to see if I could cross Hecate Strait." Bill claims he "left at sunrise on June 21 and I set at sunset."
But the paddling distance from Sooke to Port Renfrew is only around 35 miles. Did Bill do the trip and out back?​
Sunrise to sunset on June 21 at Sooke is just over 16 hours. To make 70 miles during that time would have required Bill to sustain a pace of 4.3 miles per hour (3.7 kt, or 7 kph) without any breaks. In rolling swells along the Strait of Juan de Fuca, that would be a brisk pace even for an athletic paddler in a slim, modern boat. Could Bill really have paddled that quickly single-handing a fat double kayak like Ayak?​
On the other hand, 35 miles in 16 hours is a pace of a 2.2 miles per hour (1.9 kt, or 3.5 kph), which seems much more sustainable for a double. It is also more consistent with Bill's description of the route as "Sooke to Port Renfrew."​
But 35 miles in a day is hardly a record-setting trip, even for a non-athletic paddler. Elsewhere in the interview, Bill says he has "lots of intermediate camps, so I don't have to do those long [passages]." He says his intermediate camps are spaced 25 miles apart. If 25 miles strikes Bill as an intermediate day's passage, then it seems unlikely that 35 miles would have been his longest-ever passage.​
The shortest possible crossing of Hecate Strait is just over 30 miles at the north end of the strait, from the Tree Knob Islands to Rose Spit. A 35-mile passage out of Sooke would seem a good practice run for this crossing. However, there's no record of Bill traveling as far as the north end of Hecate Strait. His northernmost camp that we know of was Harvey Island, which was also his main camp for some years, as well as his closest known camp to Hecate Strait. From Harvey Island, the crossing of Hecate Strait is around 80 miles. A 35-mile passage from Sooke to Port Renfrew would be inadequate practice for such a crossing, but a 70-mile passage from Sooke to Port Renfrew and back would be good practice. But then we are back to the problem of sustaining a 4.3 mile-per-hour pace for sixteen hours in ocean swells in a double kayak.​
Even if we grant Bill a spring tide (which he says, in the interview, that he had), sixteen hours is more than one full tide cycle. Even with perfect timing, he would have faced almost as much adverse current as helpful. I don't think we can explain his progress by pointing to favorable currents.​
So I am left confused. Bill's description of the Sooke passage is not a 70-mile passage, and his description of the time it took is, in my opinion, unrealistic for a 70-mile passage. But the more realistic-sounding 35-mile passage is probably not consistent with it being Bill's longest day, nor is it adequate rehearsal for Bill's most likely route across Hecate Strait.​
In some ways, it's silly of me to spend so much time thinking about the color of Bill's kayak or the length of his longest crossing. Bill himself would have been baffled by my interest, nor would he have expressed a reciprocal interest in any of my kayak doings (longest day: 65 miles!). For some reason, I care more about Kayak Bill trivia than Kayak Bill would have.

In his article "Kayak Bill—a Requiem," Keith Webb describes something similar happening to him:

For me Bill embodied an ideal of self-sufficient competence. There was my curiosity about him, and there was something curious in how his path had repeatedly crossed mine in ways that were of consequence to me and inconsequential to him.​

It's hard to think of anything that would seem less consequential to Kayak Bill than an attempt, decades after the fact, to reconstruct his longest voyage. But for me, as for Keith, Bill embodies something special, and I cannot ever seem to satisfy my curiosity.

Alex
 
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chodups

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Bill’s boat had a greenish-blue deck and white hull but, by the time of his death it was chipped, scraped and badly faded to an ugly light blue-ish color.
Kayak 1.jpg

Ayak Courtesy of Perry Davis

I am certain that the brown and black kayak shown in the book is Stewart Marshal’s wooden boat. I have no idea who took that photo or where it was taken but the location in the photo looks nothing like the beach in front of Bill’s camp on Gosling. Since it is Stewart’s boat rather than Bill’s in the photo it could have been taken anywhere as Stewart traveled the coast more broadly than Bill.

You mention the discrepancy between Bill’s account of mileage between Sooke and Port Renfrew and reality. You are right. When I first heard that interview years ago, I never thought to measure it but Glenn Lewis straightened me out on the actual mileage so that is a data point to consider when studying the man.

It is my belief that Bill’s northernmost camp was at Wallace Bight and I don’t think he spent much time there. I’ve never talked to anyone who has stumbled on that camp and though he referred to it as “Wallace Bight Camp” and not “Wallace Bight Bivi Camp” it should indicate that he had installed his usual infrastructure but, honestly, Wallace Bight is totally Inside Passage-esque and I don’t think that was his preferred style. Maybe he traveled a lot further north but lost his charts. I don’t know, but I don’t think so.
002-KB Camps for Perry.jpg

I have included only camps that are either on a charts plus Hanson Island. Obviously he had other camps in the Broughtons and the like but I don't have their locations.

I have read accounts where people have come across “windscreens” and other beach architecture and said that it was Bill’s but if it isn’t on one of his charts of the area then I don’t buy it. An example is an account posted here a few years back where a paddler found a windscreen at Cree Point and said that it was a Kayak Bill Camp. Not. Bill doesn’t make note of Cree Point on his charts and that is a pretty inconvenient spot for a guy living his lifestyle. The top of that bluff can be windy and rainy and not a place he would have chosen to invest time in building a camp.
 

alexsidles

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I'll say it again in public, Jon: You should have been the one to write the book! I think you've figured out the boat mystery perfectly.

Below is a photograph of the boat Brandon erroneously identifies as Kayak Bill's Ayak, taken from To Be a Warrior.

IMG_6867.jpg


Below is a photograph of Stewart Marshall in Sointula, taken from the Spirit Dancer Canoe Journey youth project, June 28, 2016 news update. The boat Stewart is sitting on appears to be the same boat from Brandon's book:

07-28-2.jpg


Alex
 

chodups

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It was nearly eighteen years ago when “Kayak Bill” Davidson posted his last journal entry. His final entry was surprising and seemingly incomplete. It consisted only of an inventory of his remaining tobacco supply and candles plus a mundane description of the day’s weather which was: “overcast with light rain showers and light & variable winds. Fog & drizzle with light north to northwest winds by noon”. That was it. As a lifelong journaler and documentarian of his own life and after a month on Gosling Island the only thing that mattered enough for him to mention was that he was down to 6 pouches of tobacco and 6 candles. Really? As an aside, he was going through a pouch every 3-4 days and using candles at a rate of about one every 10 days. His candle supply would last into February but he knew that he would run out of smokes in about three weeks.

His teeth and gums had been a mess for decades causing lots of pain and occasional infection. He had lived with painful sores on his legs that came and went and problematic bowel movements that, best case scenario, could have been caused by not drinking enough fresh water. He had intermittent stomach pains which might have been related to diet and lower back pains that were increasing in frequency. His lifestyle, admired by many, had made him suspectable to many forms of early death and I suspect that he was aware of it all.

The Coroner’s report listed the estimated date of death as December 8, 2003 but went on to say that that determining the date was problematic due to the remains appearing more consistent with a passing in late February or early March. Further there was no evidence supporting whether the gunshot was self-inflicted or administered by others. The toxicology report indicated that there was alcohol in his blood.

The book contains conflicting information on where his body was found with one account describing that he was located near his camp on Gosling while the Coroner’s Report mentions the southern end of Goose Island.

I’m not sure that we will ever know. One thing that I feel certain about is that the guy who Bill beat up 20 years prior to his death did not hold a grudge that long nor did he row a boat from Quadra Island to the Goose Group in early December to carry out an execution.



The rest of it I’m still chewing on.
 
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alexsidles

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As long as we’re speculating, I would throw negligent discharge into the mix, as well. Anyone who’s spent enough time around firearms has a close call or two to relate.

I was hoping Brandon’s book would provide more answers, or if not answers, at least foreclose certain possibilities. It’s not clear he even asked the police or coroner for further information. Was there any forensic investigation of the bullet or gun? If not, why not? Obviously there have been no arrests or prosecutions, but what criminal leads, if any, did police even pursue? Did they ever have a suspect? Did they even interview anyone to develop leads?

For that matter, what about Bill’s friends? Stewart Marshall seems to have his suspicions, but Brandon never says specifically what they are, or what their basis is, or what Stewart or anyone else has ever done to follow up.

Even if the post-mortem investigations never led to any concrete conclusions, it would still be nice to know how hard anyone tried, if at all. And even if no one did try very hard, that, too, would be worthy of note.

Alex
 

chodups

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A book that contains the phrase ".22 shotgun" is not a reliable source of info about firearms.
Yeah. I caught that, too. Since the reference wasn't attributed to anyone else I figured that it might have been a train of consciousness slip up by the author that drew no notice by editors or others who might have been proofing it. I also thought that it might have been something that was condensed from statements about the acquisition of the .22 rifle, .22 birdshot and Bill's naivete on being able to shoot ducks and geese for food using the two together. I never read an account of a successful bird hunt by Bill with that rifle. If he tried birdshot I think he gave up on that experiment pretty early on.
 

nootka

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My understanding (no personal experience) is the size 12 shot in a .22 shotshell will discourage snakes at close range (10 feet ?) and that's about all they are good for. Whereas a .22 rifle with the usual ammo would be very useful to a forager.
 
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